Before his defeat in the 2020 presidential election, President Donald Trump made a deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan to withdraw all U.S. forces from that war ravaged nation by May 1, 2021. President Joe Biden said logistical issues would prevent Washington from honoring that agreement, but reports say he he’ll be sending all remaining American troops home by this Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. by Al Qaeda.
There are some 3,500 American soldiers now in Afghanistan, but only a small contingent of Marines will remain at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul after the Sept. 11 withdrawal. U.S. officials said that airstrikes and raids by special operations troops based outside the country could be employed if intelligence found that Al Qaeda posed a growing threat. It’s estimated that since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, 157,000 people have been killed, including 43,000 civilians. More than 2,300 U.S. troops have lost their lives in the conflict.
The United Nations, together with Turkey and Qatar, recently announced that a high-level conference aimed at ending decades of conflict in Afghanistan will begin on April 24, bringing together representatives of both the Afghan government and the Taliban. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Nicolas J.S. Davies, an independent journalist and author, who assesses the United Nations’ role in negotiating a peace deal in Afghanistan, America’s longest war.
NICOLAS J.S. DAVIES: There have been talks between the Kabul government and the Taliban. They basically reached a deadlock. The summer is coming. Spring and summer in Afghanistan — that is the fighting season. If the war just rages on through this summer, clearly the U.S. government is very nervous about where things will stand by the fall because the Taliban has the upperhand in the actual civil war and will almost certainly, you know, just keep gaining more territory.
Of course, this puts the Taliban in a very strong negotiating position. So what the U.S. has done is to invite the United Nations to lead a peace process involving a cease-fire and some kind of political transition, you know, to basically shift all of this from the civil war to a political process of some kind. The U.S. is trying to finally relinquish their stranglehold over the negotiations and the peace process and basically ask others to get involved. A group comprised of the U.N., the United States, Turkey and Qatar handed over nine guiding principles for the summit to the Afghan government and the Taliban.
President Ghani held his own little conference in Tajikistan last week. His pronouncements may just amount to a starting negotiating position. But, you know, he is more or less rejecting the idea of a transitional government and essentially saying that he will not give up power except through an election. And, you know, the basic concept of (Secretary of State Antony) Blinken’s proposal and the UN proposal is to have a political transition with a joint government with people from both sides that would then hold an election.
SCOTT HARRIS: What are the prospects for the survival of the Afghan government under current President Ashraf Ghani, if and when the U.S. troops are withdrawn? The Taliban are gaining strength in the countryside and have logistical control over more than half the country. Will that Afghan government, that U.S.-supported government survive, do you think?
NICOLAS J.S. DAVIES: Well, that all depends, doesn’t it? And on under what circumstances the U.S. is withdrawing. Is the U.S. still conducting airstrikes? Is there a ceasefire between the government and the Taliban? Is there an agreement on some kind of power sharing and political transition agreements to get through a transitional phase that can lead to Afghans from all over Afghanistan, taking part in either an election or some more traditional form of assembly — they have these things they call “loya jirgas.” There have been a couple of those since the U.S. invasion where tribal leaders and people come from all over the country and all get together and discuss plans for the country. But it really depends on the circumstances.
And that is why this U.N.-led peace process is absolutely critical. If there cannot be some sort of agreement between the Ghani government and the Taliban, then what has changed? I mean, the thing is — the U.S., with whatever influence it has over the Ghani government has to be very careful here because with the Taliban holding the upperhand in the actual fighting, if the U.S. and/or the U.S.-backed government try to act too tough in these negotiations and are not willing to give up significant amount of power, then the Taliban would really have the option of just deciding to keep fighting. I mean, it hasn’t been going too badly for them. But of course, the death toll is horrendous. The government claimed it killed 160 Taliban fighters in Kandahar province just in the last few days. They’ve retaken one district there, apparently, according to the government.